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Avoiding Holiday Hassles at Work – What Employees Are Saying

The holidays are upon us, and yes, that means that holiday celebrations in the workplace are here as well.  Unfortunately, it is not one of the favorite time of year for most HR professionals given all of the challenges associated with it – managing employees’ expectations about holiday celebrations, bonuses, and getting time off.  In fact, we have heard a number of negative comments from employees and managers regarding the holidays.  To investigate the issue more thoroughly, we recently sent out a survey to the managers and employees we serve.

We had an amazing response, over 2800 people replied, and over 900 shared individual stories of their worst experiences at work during the holidays – which seems to confirm the intense energy around the issue of workplace holiday celebrations.  The findings may be helpful to you in better understanding employees’ perspectives on the holiday season, and, specifically, irritants in the workplace around the holiday activities.

We thought it would be helpful first to identify what people don’t like in general about the holidays, and then explore more specifically what they don’t like about the holidays in their workplace. On these two questions, participants were given a list of 15 items to choose from (they could choose more than one). And here are the results:

Q1. What aspects of the holiday season do you DISLIKE the most? 
1. Fighting traffic                                                                 47%
2. The extra expense of Christmas                                   41%
3. Coming up with gift ideas for others                           37%
4. Gaining weight                                                                 32%
5. Expectations to buy others gifts                                   30%
6. Busyness                                                                            29%
7. Coming up with gift ideas for myself                            27%

Q2. What don’t you like that happens at the workplace during the holidays? 
1. Pressure to get year-end tasks done                               33%
2. “White elephant” gift exchanges                                     28%
3. Expected to buy gifts for colleagues or supervisor      27%
4. Required to participate in “Secret Santa” giving         25%
5. Having to work on holidays                                              24%
6. Not being allowed to take time off                                  24%
7. Having to attend an after-hours holiday celebration  23%

While there are probably no real surprises in the results, some interesting themes emerged:

1. Probably the most important finding is the amount of “energy” that exists among employees and managers surrounding holiday activities and practices, both in our culture generally and in the workplace.  Be aware that many employees have strong opinions about (and reactions to) holiday celebrations at work (this is not news to HR professionals!)

2. Fully one-third (33%) of employees and managers report that the aspect of the holidays they dislike the most is the pressure to get year-end tasks done in a compressed time-frame.

3. Three of the most disliked activities at work (#2, #3, #4) among employees involves gift giving (“White elephant” Christmas gifts, buying gifts for co-workers, participating in “Secret Santa” exchanges).

4. The second cluster of most disliked activities at work (#5, #6, #7) center on the issue of having to work on the holidays themselves and being required to attend after hours celebrations.

5. Additionally, we asked people to write and tell us examples of their worst holiday experience related to work.  A number of common themes became clear from the example stories shared. Each of the following topics had numerous examples given.

*having to work on the holiday or having to use Paid Time Off for the holiday;
*a lack of focus on the holidays, not being able to celebrate ‘Christmas’ (as opposed to a ‘winter celebration’), but also being from a different religious background and feeling forced to celebrate Christmas;
*complaints about having an in-house holiday meal and expecting employees to bring the           food and do all of the clean-up OR inviting spouses / significant others to a meal at a restaurant and having the employees pay for their guest;
*negative behaviors and poor judgment resulting from excessive consumption of alcohol;
*embarrassing experiences during White Elephant / Secret Santa gift giving.

Implications & Suggestions
A key question to ask:  what do the results suggest we should do differently?  While interesting, without identifying practical action steps from the information gathered, this exercise is a waste of time.  So here are some practical tips for employers, managers and HR professionals that can be gleaned from the results:

  • Don’t force your employees to participate in gift giving exchanges (explicitly or implicitly).  In fact, you may want to see how many people really want to participate and consider not doing a gift exchange activity — the irritation created may not be worth the effort and keeping to prior tradition.
  • Be sensitive to scheduling issues and time requirements during the holidays, especially with regards to afterwork events.
  • If you are going to have a meal to celebrate, provide the food (or at least the main course) and account for those who don’t eat meat.
  • Leave ample time for employees to work on the extra year-end tasks and reports.  Be aware that people feel a “time crunch” both in their personal lives as well as at work.
  • Whenever possible, don’t create artificial deadlines for work to be completed. If possible, let some of the tasks and reports be done in January.

With a few tweaks in how holidays are handling, a lot of negative reactions from employees can be avoided.

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